Music and the Positive Side of Auditory Processing Disorder

Most of you know my challenges with my auditory processing condition: difficulties filtering sound, fatigue when trying to carry on a conversation with too much ambient noise, words getting jumbled in the midst of too many competing conversations, processing delays deriving from the visual nature of my hearing, and so on.

In general, sound always feels very close to me. If I’m in the midst of very loud sound, such as the loud rock ‘n roll music they play at the local pharmacy, I literally feel as though the sound is inside me, and as though I am inside the sound. It’s exhausting. I can’t concentrate, and it takes my nervous system some time to calm down afterwards.

Since auditory processing has been my greatest challenge, I’ve been thinking lately about whether there is an upside to my condition. Certainly, in another culture, having acute hearing would be a plus. I’d undoubtedly be the first to hear the tiger approaching the village, or to perceive some other sign of impending disaster. But in a noisy culture like our own, I hadn’t been able to see much benefit in it.

And then I started thinking about my relationship with music.

It’s not something I’ve talked about a lot, perhaps because I take it so much for granted. When I was a child, I was a classical pianist. I didn’t just play the piano. I was a pianist, performing in recitals in Boston and playing in statewide piano contests, one of which, to my great surprise, I actually won. I began playing when I was eight years old, and I was told right away that I had a lot of talent.

It wasn’t that I was more technically proficient than the next person. It’s that I was musical. I felt the music, from the inside out.

Back then, I couldn’t see what the big deal was. To me, it all came naturally, and I could never understand the fuss. But now I think I do. I had the same experience back then that I have in the pharmacy with the loud rock ‘n roll music — the music was inside me, and I was inside the music. The only difference was that the music was classical, and that the sound of the piano thrilled me. The melodies, the harmonies, the timbre, the volume — all of them were a delight to my auditory system.

I used to play Chopin and cry. I used to play Beethoven and feel as though I were communing with his spirit. It was a complete physical, sensory, and emotional experience. It took me over and spoke to my soul. It resonated through me.

As a child, of course, I thought that everyone experienced music that way.

I stopped playing the piano because I became very stressed out by all the performing. I was an extremely shy child and received no guidance for how to handle the pressure. Performing brought with it perfectionism, and perfectionism created pressure, and pressure ultimately created a lack of enjoyment.

So I turned to singing. People have told me that I have a good singing voice, but I’ve never felt that I was particularly talented as a singer, so there has never been any pressure involved. I just enjoy it, and other people seem to enjoy it, too. As an adult, I’ve mainly sung Jewish liturgical music — first as a prayer leader when the rabbi at my local synagogue was on sabbatical, then as an assistant when my husband was the spiritual leader at my next synagogue, and then as a lay rabbi when my husband and I led our own services some years back. I’ve sung at weddings, life-cycle events, and weekly services.

Whenever I sing, whether the music comes from another culture or my own, I am in the music, and the music is in me. I am in the history, the culture, the laughter, the sorrow, and the struggle of the people who came before. All of it takes up residence in my body, my mind, and my soul.

I’ve struggled with whether I’d want my auditory processing condition cured. I’ve decided that I wouldn’t. I’d lose the gifts along with the difficulties. I’ve adapted quite well to the difficulties, and the gifts are an essential part of who I am.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism.

Music and the Positive Side of Auditory Processing Disorder appears here by permission.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Memoir is The Uncharted Path.

[image via Wikimedia Commons; click here or on image for a 1965 performance of “Do You Believe In Magic”]

on 06/24/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I’ll leave the connections to auditory processing difficulties and autism for another day, but regarding that universal experience of musical interpenetration, Michael Ventura has set it in the context of the voodoo deities known as loa:

    “In American culture we’ve mistaken the loa’s servant for the loa, the horse for the rider, but only on the surface. We may have worshiped the horse, the singer-dancer, but we did so because we felt the presence of the rider, the spirit. John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful said it succinctly in one of his lyrics:

    And we’ll go dancin’
    And then you’ll see
    That the magic’s in the music
    And the music’s in me

    “The Voodoo rite of possession by the god became the standard of American performance in rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Jim Morrison, Johnny Rotten, Prince—they let themselves be possessed not by any god they could name but by the spirit they felt in the music.

    Andrew Lehman of course has written at some length about dance and music as a native, prehistoric context for autism but as I say, another day …
    (link is to a page, not to the download itself)

  2. Kat says:

    Great thoughts! My son has APD and has quite a connection to music, too. He’s only 6, and likes to definitely “be” in the music. It’s soooo nice to hear a positive APD story, especially dealing with music. I’ve read so many articles about APD people not even being able to learn music. As my husband and I are musicians, I certainly hope my son can enjoy talents like the ones you have mentioned. Thanks for sharing this!

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